In praise of ostentation!

There is one species strutting around the Reid Park Zoo, unconcerned about human visitors, and VERY impressed with their own beauty and perfection. They change their look and behavior with the seasons (breeding season, that is) and choose exactly when and where they’d like to visit you.

They can often be seen pilfering food from their animal companions in the Zoo, and seem very interested in also attracting their attention. That’s right – these ladies and gentlemen, all 17 of them, are “free range,” and no, we’re not talking about the ducks that waddle around at will or the very plump squirrels.

They are the Reid Park Zoo’s ostentation of Indian Peafowl, and yes, that’s what a group of peacocks and peahens is officially called! These 12 males and 5 females are officially part of the RPZ’s collection, which means that their health is checked annually. But they are allowed to roam around, so you never know where you might see one – on the path in front of you, squawking loudly from a tree in the Giraffe habitat, showing off for the Grevy’s Zebras, relaxing with the South African Leopard Tortoises, posing next to a White Rhino, or anywhere else they decide to go.
That’s right – anywhere. These birds are fully flighted, so they could choose to fly off from the Zoo whenever they wanted – but they know a good environment when they have one. For them, The Reid Park Zoo grounds constitute a desirable home where they can find safety, ample food and water, shelter, and yes, the admiration of many humans. Not to mention health care if they need it. Though they are unconcerned about the presence of humans in their midst, they will obligingly (if slowly) stroll out of the way if they’re blocking your path. They also seem to enjoy allowing you to photograph them.

Indian Peafowl are members of the Pheasant family. Of course, peacocks are famous for their gorgeous plumage, and no two individuals have exactly the same color patterns. They spend breeding season displaying their beautiful tail feathers in a huge fan (six or seven feet wide) in hopes of attracting a mate. After the season ends, though, they drop all these feathers and grow new ones the next year. They have unmistakable, really loud voices, usually calling in the mornings and evenings, but if it’s breeding season, all day. At night they sleep in a group in a safe, tall tree or two. In their native  habitats, India and Sri Lanka, they spend their days foraging on the ground each day for grain, insects, and even small reptiles – but at the Zoo, the smorgasbord is endless – they can forage if they choose to, but  they can much more easily find a wide variety of food just for the taking.  

Luckily for us, they live about 15-20 years, so those of us who get a special kick out of seeing these haughty creatures walking or displaying in front of us can count on this ostentatious bonus experience every time we visit The Reid Park Zoo!

Imagine you’re Charles Darwin, feeling you have a pretty good handle on the earth’s amazing biodiversity after exploring for four years and filling your ship, The Beagle, with  a multitude of live animal specimens for further study.  Then, off the coast of Ecuador, you and your crew come upon an archipelago called the Galapagos.   You realize then you most certainly haven’t seen it all!   And it’s no coincidence that Galapago is an archaic word in Spanish meaning tortoise.

Amazing Creatures

Greeting Darwin and his crew in 1835 were creatures such as the marine iguana, literally half of the Blue-Footed Boobies on earth engaging in mating rituals, the only flightless Cormorant species on earth, and a 3-inch painted locust that was capable of jumping ten feet in the air.   

But perhaps most famous and now beloved of his discoveries were the Galapagos Giant Tortoises. They were huge, they were docile, and they were everywhere.   It’s estimated that there were once 250,000 of them on the islands, and until humans discovered them, they really had no natural enemies. 

Perfectly adapted

The Galapagos Giant Tortoise subspecies vary slightly from island to island in the Archipelago, adapting perfectly to the different environments.   The major adaptation, though, has to do with shell shape – they sport either domed or “saddle-backed” shells (with an upward angle on the front of the carapace, which restricts how far UP they can extend their long necks).   It turns out that the tortoises living on more arid islands need the flexibility to reach higher up for their favorite food, the prickly pear cactus.   Those living on lush, humid islands only have to extend their necks forward to nab a delicious herbivorous dinner.

The Giant Tortoises lead a placid existence in the wild, and also in human care, sleeping up to 16 hours per day, basking in the sun, and occasionally wallowing in mud.   In the wild, Galapagos finches can often be found on their shells, symbiotically pecking pesky ticks from the folds of the tortoises’ skin.  

During mating season, things get interesting

Things perk up a bit during mating season, between January and August (depending on weather), when males may compete for females in a curious faceoff : it’s a neck-stretching and mouth opening contest, where the one with the longest neck gets the girl!  Mating can take hours, and is celebrated by the champion-necked males with an extremely loud roaring throughout.    

For visitors to the Reid Park Zoo, it’s often confusing when Ferdinand and Isabella, the two Galapagos tortoises, are enjoying this ritual.  Since the roaring is audible throughout the Zoo, guests flock to the lion habitat, but find them fast asleep – how can this be?

The females lay between 2 and 16 eggs about the size of tennis balls, burying them about 12 inches in the ground.   Then they walk away – so the hatchlings are on their own, right from the start.   The temperature in the nest will determine whether the babies will hatch as males or females. A few centuries ago, enough of these hatchlings survived to create a growing population of these long-lived giants.   Nobody can verify the life span of a Galapagos Tortoise, but it has been estimated to be up to 170 years.      

The Trouble Begins

 Spanish explorers first discovered the tortoises in the sixteenth century, and they quickly became an important shipboard food source for seafarers, including pirates, merchantmen, whalers, and yes, the crew of The Beagle.   

One of these giant tortoises’ amazing adaptations is the ability to go up to a year without food or water, making them the perfect, low-maintenance livestock onboard a ship.  They also have shells which look solid, but are very light due to a honeycomb structure.  And of course, they were very easy to capture, though maybe not to carry – some individuals can weigh more than 500 pounds. 

Also, settlers on the islands introduced invasive species, like pigs, goats, and rats, which began to consume the same plant life that had been central to the tortoises’ survival.   And of course, the tortoises were also used for food by the islands’ inhabitants.

Now they’re endangered

Originally, 14 different subspecies of the Galapagos Giant Tortoise were identified in the wild, but sadly, two of those subspecies are now believed to be extinct.   Best estimates are that only 10,000 – 15,000 altogether now survive in the wild.

But there is reason for hope

In 1959, the Ecuadorian government established Galapagos National Park in order to protect remaining habitat, and eggs began to be collected and incubated at the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island.    Here at home, under the guidance of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Galapagos tortoise breeding programs began in accredited zoos .  The aim was to reintroduce members of the species to the wild once their habitats were deemed safe.  The San Diego Zoo alone has hatched more than 94 Galapagos tortoise babies through the years, enabling breeding programs to get started at other AZA zoos.  It takes patience though – breeding only begins when individuals reach the age of 20-25.

Way to go, Diego

There have also been some amazing in situ success stories.   A recent example is the tale of Diego, who had been living in the San Diego Zoo and  was returned to the Charles Darwin Research Station to help repopulate his kind on the island of Espanola.  In 1965, only 26 members of Diego’s species survived there.   Since his arrival back in The Galapagos in 1976, numbers have grown to nearly 2,000.   Diego gets credit for fathering roughly 40% of them, or around 800 new tortoises.   Diego will now live out his years – he’s over 100, but of course that’s probably just late middle age for a Galapagos tortoise!   He’ll enjoy many more serene years – back on his native island.   

Darwin would approve.

The King of Beasts! The Queen of Beasts! Symbol of Africa and of the wild. Symbol of power and strength. Top of the food chain. Fierce. Playful. Gentle. Ferocious. Majestic. Sleepy. Lions have fascinated people from the beginning of recorded history. They have starred in books, movies, songs, and art. Fans of the Lion King know that Simba, the Swahili word for lion, also means “king,” “strong,” and “determined.” In English, to call someone “lionhearted” means that he or she is courageous and strong.  

Physical description

You have seen pictures of lions in books or movies, and maybe you have seen living lions in a zoo. How would you describe what a lion looks like? A large animal with short, tan fur, roughly the size of a tapir and smaller than a zebra? Looks a bit like a big, tall housecat? Has a muscular body and limbs, and a deep chest? A short neck, and a round head with short ears and eyes that face forward? Sharp, retractable claws and large canine teeth? Some with extra-long hair around their necks and shoulders? All correct descriptions of these iconic and beloved creatures!

Size

African lions are the second-largest of the large cat genus, Panthera, which also includes tigers, jaguars, and leopards. Lions are taller than tigers, but not as long or as heavy. Adult female lions (often called lionesses) usually weigh 265 to 395 pounds – a lot heavier than a housecat! – and stand almost 3½ feet tall at the shoulder – about the height of a 4- or 5-year-old girl or boy. Female lions are usually 4½ to 5½ feet long in the body. Male lions are usually bigger than females – 330 to 550 pounds, 5½ to 8 feet long in the body, and 4 feet tall at the shoulder. 

Both females and males have tails that are 2 to 3 feet long and have a dark tuft of fur at the tip. The difference in size between females and males is an example of something called “sexual dimorphism.” Another aspect of sexual dimorphism in African Lions is that male lions have impressive manes – a collar of longer, thicker, often darker fur that covers their necks and shoulders. Female and male lions differ much more than females and males of other large cat species. 

Native range and habitat

There are two subspecies of lion, African lions and Asiatic lions. Almost all wild Asiatic lions live in a single reserve (protected area) in India, and there are only a few hundred of them. Wild African lions number in the thousands and also live in reserves or national parks. There a few small reserves with lions in central and western Africa, but most African lions live in protected reserves in eastern and southern Africa. Within these areas, lions can adapt to savannah, grassland, open woodlands, or even semi-desert – essentially any habitat where they can find cover for hunting. 

Social structure

African lions are the most social of all the cats. They usually live in groups called prides that can have as many as a few dozen members. A pride usually has several adult females that are related to each other, one or more unrelated adult males, and several cubs and sub-adults. Female lions often stay in their mother’s pride for life. Males leave the pride at sexual maturity and take over another pride or form a new pride of their own. 

African lions are territorial. They declare their territory by scent-marking with urine and by roaring – other animals can hear a lion’s deep, resonant roar from miles away! African lions ferociously defend their territory from other lions, usually with the males of the pride fighting any other male that transgresses into the pride’s territory. 

Diet and hunting

Lions are carnivores – they eat meat. Wildlife biologists call them obligate carnivores. That means that their bodies cannot make some of the nutrients they need to survive, and they must get those nutrients by eating other animals. In the wild, lions hunt a wide variety of prey animals, but mainly large mammals. Among their favorites are antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and sometimes juvenile elephants, giraffes, rhinos, or hippos. When they cannot catch or scavenge large prey, though, lions will also eat birds, reptiles, or marine animals – really, whatever is available. In agricultural areas near villages, lions will feed on domestic livestock. Lions in zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, are fed a balanced diet that includes ground meat with added vitamins, beef bones, and sometimes thawed carcasses of smaller mammals. 

Lions hunt in groups with other members of their pride. Most of the hunting is done by the pride’s females. Lions are not the fastest runners and they don’t have stamina to run long distances, so instead they use stealth, teamwork, and strength. Binocular vision from their forward-facing eyes makes them very good at judging distances. They use cover from grass and brush to sneak up close to their prey, often at dusk when it is harder to be seen, and then they launch their attach with a short burst of speed, and use their strength to pull down and kill their prey. 

When lions are not hunting, they spend a lot of time resting and sleeping. A lion will usually spend 18-20 hours of each day napping. Lions have no natural predators, so they can safely sleep on the ground, in the open. 

Reproduction & development.

 Following a gestation of about 3½ months, a pregnant female lion gives birth to a litter of 2-3 cubs. A newborn lion cub is tiny – about 2 pounds, has spotted fur, and often still has its eyes closed. Newborn cubs are almost helpless, so the mother keeps her cubs hidden from predators and separate from the rest of the pride for the first 6-8 weeks of life, rejoining the pride after that. The females in a pride usually give birth around the same time, and they then raise their growing cubs communally, with all the mothers sharing responsibility for care and protection of all the vulnerable young ones.

Lion cubs playfully stalking and pouncing on each other and on adults is one of the cutest behaviors in the animal kingdom! They’re clearly having fun, but they are also practicing crucial hunting skills.Young lions begin to participate in hunts when they are about 2 years old. Female lions begin to bear young at around 3-4 years old, and males begin to father cubs at around 5 years old. 

Lifespan

In the wild, male lions typically live to about 12 years, and females to about 16 years. Lions in zoos, with human care, typically live much longer, up to about 30 years. 

Conservation status

Paleontologists have determined that about ten thousand years ago, lions lived in most of Africa, southern Asia, southeastern Europe, and much of North and South America. Lions today are found in a much narrower range, though, and the number of African lions has dropped dramatically: 10-fold in the past 100 years, and about 3-fold in the last 20 years alone! There are now only about 20,000 African lions left in the wild, and they need help from us in order for the species to survive. 

What can you do to help protect and conserve African lions in the wild? The major threats to lions in the wild are loss of habitat due to either climate change or human development, and hunting for the wildlife trade. Visiting a zoo accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is one fun way to help – AZA zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, use part of their proceeds from ticket sales and membership fees to support researchers and conservation programs in Africa that work to preserve this amazing animal species.  

(And don’t forget to visit their cousins, a pair of beautiful and critically endangered tigers, when the Reid Park Zoo expansion is complete. You’ll be helping to save them as well.)   

What’s that Screamer?

What has a chicken-looking beak, long legs with big toes, and screams like a two year old?  A Screamer of course! You’d never guess it by looking at them but these large birds are related to ducks and geese and live near tropical and sub-tropical wetlands in South America. 

Hunters beware!  The loud cries of the Screamer can be heard for miles around and help guard their habitat from approaching danger.  Many other species, such as the Blue Throated Macaw benefit from these bird watchdogs.  However, the Screamers themselves do not often need to worry about hunters.  Their skin contains tiny air sacs making their spongy meat not something someone would want to serve for a meal!  Their skeleton’s pneumatic (air filled) bones extend even to the outermost toe bones. 

Prepare to be screamed at!

There are three species of Screamers, all found in South America. 

  • The Horned Screamer has a calcified spike on its forehead and looks like a bird unicorn.  This bird, called Arauco in Spanish, is the official bird of the Department of Arauca and the Municipality of Arauca in Columbia. Listen to the Horned Screamer call.  
  • The Black Necked Screamer, or Northern Screamer, has a declining population and is classified as near threatened due to habitat loss.  Listen to the Northern Screamer call. 
  • The Southern Crested Screamer of east central South America is the species at Reid Park Zoo.  Listen to the Crested Screamer call.

More interesting than the average bird, literally!

  • Habitat loss is not the only threat to this species.  Some farmers will take them and use them to guard chickens with their danger scream.
  • They make a crackling sound when they fly due to the air sacs under their skin and around their bones.  
  • They have sharp bone spurs on their wings-and they know how to use them!!!  Although they are even tempered birds they will use these spurs to defend themselves and their territory.
  • The horn on the horned screamer is made of cartilage, easily breaks and grows back to about six inches in length.
  • Their long toes are used to grab vegetation while wading in the water. Sometimes they’ll even be seen swimming.  And this time of year, you have a good chance of seeing them swim at the Reid Park Zoo!

Screams sometimes translate as “Get away! That’s MY mate!”

Screamers are monogamous and mate for life.  Together they build a well hidden nest on land close to the water.  They share the duties of incubating the eggs and raising the chicks.  A clutch is typically 3-5 large eggs, hatching in about 45 days.  Although screamers are herbivores, while feeding the young they may feed on invertebrates and other small animals. The chicks are able to swim immediately and fledge in about 8-10 weeks.

Check them out

We have two Southern Crested Screamers at Reid Park Zoo.  Brothers Lionel and Echo were both hatched in Birmingham, Alabama from different clutches.  Lionel was hatched October 15, 2012, and now weighs almost 7 1/2 pounds.  Echo was hatched on June 11, 2017 and now weighs almost 8 pounds. Echo came to Reid Park Zoo on October 7, 2019. Lionel came to Reid Park Zoo from Atlanta on November 11, 2020.   

The next time you’re at the Reid Park Zoo, follow the path into South America.  There you’ll find two large Crested Screamers sharing their space with the capybaras.  Although they can be loud as their name suggests, these birds spend many hours enjoying their habitat.  Check out and enjoy the crested screamer at The Reid Park Zoo, and not too soon in the future, you’ll be able to  compare these fascinating creatures to many exciting new bird species in the Reid Park Zoo expansion!

What has a 24-inch tongue, no teeth, and eats 30,000 of his favorite treats each day? And who is clever enough not to be stung while procuring those tasty treats? And who isn’t able to stay warm very well, (because the favorite treats don’t have too much nutritional value) but has a nifty and distinctive tail that works as both camouflage and a handy blanket?   

It’s the Giant Anteater, a lugubrious and seemingly affable resident of Central and South America, and those preferred treats are – you guessed it – ants, the kind with a nasty bite. The Giant Anteater may look like some strange creature imagined by Dr. Seuss, but don’t be fooled. These huge creatures can grow up to 8 feet (including tails) and weigh up to 140 pounds – and though they may seem slow and low energy, they are perfectly adapted to their environment. And that 2-foot tongue is anything but slow! It can flick up to 150 times per minute, and is equipped with special sticky saliva as well has interesting little spines which point backwards. In other words, Giant Anteaters are models of efficiency when it comes to eating ants, and termites too. 

And though 30,000 of anything might sound a little gluttonous, Giant Anteaters are very clever and discriminating hunters. Though they have limited eyesight, they more than compensate for this with a sense of smell 40 times more acute than our own. This means that they can identify a particular species of ant or termite before they go to the trouble of tearing open a mound. And once they access their tiny, frantic prey, they do not gorge, because doing so could destroy the particular mound for future feeding.  Besides, if they linger, they could get bitten. They snatch up the ants or termites with alacrity, then squish them on the roof of their mouths, then dispatching them to their unusually muscular stomachs for further pulverization. Research indicates that a given Giant Anteater will only extract about 140 ants from a given mound per day, so you can imagine how many stops he or she must make to ingest tens of thousands of them.    

But back to those termite or ant mounds – how exactly does the Giant Anteater get into them? One of the most interesting adaptations these creatures enjoy has to do with their claws and their shuffling gait.   Giant Anteaters have five claws on each foot, but the middle three of these on the forefeet can be up to 4 inches long and quite formidable. In order to keep them in prime “mound infiltration” condition, the Anteater walks on his knuckles with all four feet, nose pointed to the ground. But when he wants to get into a mound, the strong front legs are more than up to a quick ingress. His long nose (there really isn’t a mouth per se) allows him to quickly reach the center of the mound where the most ants or termites will be, and once the incredibly speedy tongue begins flicking, 140 of the mound’s residents are consumed in record time. He will then follow his nose to his next dining destination.

They are mostly solitary, and mostly slow and peaceable. However, when the situation calls for it, Giant Anteaters can rear up on their back legs to threaten or defend against predators, like pumas and jaguars.  If necessary, they can also “gallop” at about 30 miles per hour. They can climb and swim as well, using that amazing snout as a snorkel! But these creatures far prefer to eat and sleep, curled up securely under their bushy tails. Emerging evidence describes them as diurnal, but they are still adapting, even though they’ve been on earth for about 25 million years. In response to weather conditions, or in areas of close proximity to humans, they simply become nocturnal.

Unfortunately, that proximity to humans is becoming a greater problem for them. As human populations and their agriculture expand, the Giant Anteaters’ habitat is shrinking, at the same time their interactions with humans are increasing. The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil is researching the Anteaters’ travels  in order to determine why so many of them are killed in highway accidents. Sugar cane farming is also having a huge impact on the Giant Anteater; growers set fire to their fields in order to make the sugar cane easier to cut; Anteaters sometimes suffer significant burns through this process, but their habitats and insect diets are also affected.    

Because the Giant Anteater breeds only once annually, has only one offspring per successful breeding, and also requires a long gestation period, around 190 days, the species cannot weather much reduction from human sources like cane fields or autos. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature lists the Giant Anteater as vulnerable, which estimates that the current population, about 5000 in the wild, will be reduced by approximately 20% in the next decade. Giant Anteaters and the insect populations they control are crucial to the ecosystems in countries where they reside, so it’s especially important that reputable zoos, such as the Reid Park Zoo, contribute to their breeding in human care. And because these amazing creatures can be very tricky to study in the wild, those living in zoo environments are increasingly important to research in the effort to save the species.

The Giant Anteaters, along with countless other animals in our Zoo, and especially the vulnerable and endangered species coming to the Reid Park Zoo expansion, need more of us to understand their plight in the wild. By learning about them and caring about them, maybe we can help turn around that 20% reduction in the next ten years!

Zoological Parks, like society itself, have evolved greatly over time. Keeping captured animals is no longer a symbol of wealth and status;  the “Age of Enlightenment” in the 17th and 18th centuries brought both curiosity and reverence for the biological world. Fortunately, the dark history of animals cruelly wasting in cages (menageries) is the antithesis of the mission of modern zoos. The very best of these, like Reid Park Zoo, meet the strictest of qualifications as accredited members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These modern zoos are committed to protect, conserve and enlighten. 

During most of human evolution, we co-existed with wild animals; we were all part of the natural ecosystem. However, one consequence of our advanced society is isolation from that natural world. If we are oblivious we cannot be concerned; we will never be alarmed about a threat we know nothing about. An undeniable threat currently is that our biological world is on the brink of a crisis. 

The alarming rate and number of species extinctions is a calamity that has broad implications for all of the world’s inhabitants. Oddly, the bad news is also the good news because humans, the cause of species decline, can also provide the remedy. Studies of human behavior inform us that humans are inherently compassionate; when we learn of an impending disaster we bond together to identify the resources necessary to find solutions. For example, California Condors, the largest North American birds, are back in their natural habitat today because of captive breeding in zoos. Finding remedies begins with education, as we can solve only the problems we understand. Our accredited zoos have demonstrated they are now leaders in zoological education. 

Visitors to zoos may arrive to see exotic and fascinating animals but in the process of seeing anteaters, lions and elephants, they learn about the critical role of habitat destruction putting these beloved animals in peril. Zoos in general, and our own Reid Park Zoo in particular, are uniquely responsible for reaching countless numbers of people with a message of caring for and potentially saving species for future generations to enjoy. Without the attraction of seeing these wonderful creatures, awareness and remedial actions would not occur. In a way the educational mission of Reid Park Zoo, enlightening residents and visitors to Tucson, is a gift to all of us that is longer lasting than the delight of watching otters and meerkats play. 

During an average year half a million visitors experience the magic of Reid Park Zoo and leave with a greater appreciation of the importance of zoological diversity of our world. Importantly, in an average year nearly 30,000 school children participate in educational field trips to the zoo — cost-free thanks to grant funding. Our zoo is an educational leader in Tucson and the state of Arizona; the impact of an educated populace is invaluable to all of us. 

When we think of all that the Reid Park zoo contributes to our society, enlightening Tucsonans about the threats and solutions to species in crisis may be its greatest gift. We are fortunate that Tucson has among its many wonders, this world-class educational zoo, and further that the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide additional sources of wonder, empathy, and connection to the natural world.

Looking for Family Ursidae*
*rhymes with sky

When you look up into the night sky for the stars that form The Big Dipper and The Little Dipper, do you realize you’re searching for some of the brightest stars within Ursa Major and Ursa Minor?  

It was the Greek astronomer Ptolemy who named 2 of his 44 constellations “Big Bear” and “Little Bear” (the Minor), two of the most famous constellations visible from the northern hemisphere. Bears have symbolized strength and wisdom in many world cultures for millennia, and we reference them in our language: We know people who bear a resemblance, we hope our better actions bear fruit, and, in Tucson, we Bear Down. It’s no surprise, then, that Ptolemy featured them so prominently in his famous list of stars. In modern times, Ursa Major still ranks as the third largest of all 88 constellations recognized by the International Astronomical Union. 

Equipped with that bit of bear lore, I’d like to introduce you to a more Earth-bound member of Family Ursidae coming soon to the Reid Park Zoo’s Pathway to Asia Expansion:  Meet the sloth bear

First thing to know

This shaggy black bear is not related to sloths. Like polar, grizzly (a subspecies of brown), and Andean bears, the sloth bear is not a slow mover and can easily outrun a human. Compared to these bears, however, it does have some quirky characteristics which confused early scientists when they were trying to classify and name it.

At first sight, the sloth bear has long, shaggy black fur, smallish ears, a broad, round face, and creamy white patches of fur on its chest, usually in the shape of a Y, O, or U. So far, so good—very bear-like. Then you notice the bear’s front arms are longer than its back legs which gives it a kind of arms-dangling, sloth-like appearance. Its curvy claws are very long and don’t retract, and its specialized front feet (arms) turn inward, making it appear a bit clumsy. The bear opens its mouth and—surprise!—its top two front teeth are missing! It turns out that those curvy claws, specialized feet, and that unusual tooth gap, combined with a powerful tongue and hard palate, are the most efficient tools this bear could possibly have for slurping up its favorite food—termites and ants! Yes, this bear slurps up its food. Noisily. Very noisily.

About that diet! 

All bears are classified as omnivores which simply means they can eat both animals and plants; however, each species has evolved differently within its own ecosystem and has developed its own preferential food sources.  Bears and their diets range from the obligate, mostly carnivorous polar bear, which thrives on seals, to the mostly herbivorous panda bear, which thrives on the foliage of bamboo trees. 

The sloth bear’s diet lies somewhere in between. It thrives on termites, ants, even bees and honey, and, quite handily, it has the ability to close its nostrils off to keep those critters from crawling inside! During the Asian monsoon season, a sloth bear will eat mangos, figs, and berries, too. Like Andean bears from South America, sloth bears don’t need to hibernate because they have year-round food sources. 

At Reid Park Zoo, the bears have the most varied and complex diets of all the animals. You can often watch the grizzly bears eat whole heads of celery or lettuce, peel an orange, or forage for berries, but they also enjoy a regular diet of whole carrots, mixed nuts, mackerel, salmon, herring, eggs, ground meat, and bones. The Andean bear is highly herbivorous (second only to panda bears) and prefers melons, pears, apples, grapes, raisins, bananas, berries, and some bear chow (pellets), but her weekly diet also includes mixed nuts, carrots, and leafy greens. On hot summer days in the desert southwest, all the bears enjoy homemade popsicles filled with these same nutritious foods.

Living in the wild forests and grasslands of Asia

Like many animals, sloth bears live a solitary existence, usually coming together only for breeding; however, if food is plentiful, they may gather in groups. Like all bears, a female sloth bear will give birth to her blind, hairless cubs in a den where they will live with mom until they’re able to exist safely in the outside world. Everyone knows how fiercely protective a mother bear can be, but the sloth bear goes above and beyond—she will carry her cubs on her back until they’re about 9 months old. Remember that long, shaggy black fur on mom’s back? In little cubs’ hands, it comes in very handy for grabbing, climbing up, and hanging on! Traveling this way provides the cubs with camouflage from predators and keeps them safe until they can move more quickly on the ground. 

But all is not well in the wild. These beautiful bears are currently listed as vulnerable and have lost between 30 and 49% of their living space, depending on location, over the past 30 years. In addition to loss of habitat, they are losing their lives in retaliation for human encounters. Wherever bears live, whether in North America, South America, Europe, or Asia, the primary things causing them harm are people and climate change. Because we’re part of the problem, we must be part of the solution. In a future blog, I’ll share more information about what we can all do, as individuals and collectively, to help the sloth bears—and all bears—living in the wild. 

Why are sloth bears coming to live at Reid Park Zoo? Because their numbers are decreasing at such an  alarming rate, the Association for Zoos and Aquariums has established a Species Survival Plan (SSP) for them to ensure their genetic survival. Zoos throughout the country are assisting scientists, both in the field and at zoological institutions, to determine what these bears need to survive in the modern world living in such close proximity to humans. The sloth bears at Reid Park Zoo will become ambassadors for their species, and their mission will be to educate us about the threats their wild counterparts face.  

Ready to learn more?  Here’s a delightful video to help us envision the Reid Park Zoo expansion – and  you can get a glimpse of the sloth bear habitat which will include a waterfall, stream, pool, climbing structure, scent detectors, and a cave area. In the near future, we may have the rare privilege of witnessing a sloth bear carrying her cub on her back!

In the meantime, you can observe two other bear species at the Reid Park Zoo. The rescued grizzly bear brother-and-sister companions, Ronan and Finley, live in their habitat just south of the giraffes. Look for them on the “land” side with its boulders, climbing platforms, stream outlet, and rock climbing-cave structure or on the “water” side with its giant tree trunk, waterfall, pool, and underwater cave area. On a warm day, you might catch them swimming in the pool or wading in the shallow stream. 

The female Andean bear, Oja, lives in the South America loop directly opposite the entrance to the pacu fish cave and the black-necked swan pool. If you haven’t visited the zoo recently, bear with us for just a few weeks longer. Oja is having a staycation at the zoo’s health center while construction for the expanded Andean bear habitat is completed. She’ll be back in her pool and snoozing in her Mulberry tree very soon. 

In the meantime, if you feel the need to gaze at a bear and can’t visit the zoo, just look up at the night sky and find those bright stars representing Family Ursidae. We can never have too many bears in our lives!

WHERE WOULD WE BE WITHOUT BEES?

Do you know where your food comes from? How farmers can have seeds to plant year after year? Why you would have no almonds or apples if there were no bees? There’s a cool, new exhibit at the Reid Park Zoo, The Pollinator Garden, which can help answer these questions.   

Ever stop to consider how plants reproduce? They can’t get together to fertilize like animals can. Instead, they produce flowers and use outside “helpers” to transfer pollen (sperm) to ovary (where the eggs are). As a bee moves from flower to flower, some of the pollen she has collected from the flower’s anthers (male parts) on her furry body and legs rubs off on a stigma, the flower’s female part, which is connected by a tube to the ovary. This is called pollination. The helpers are rewarded with sweet nectar. The fertilized eggs become seeds, which can then grow into new plants. 

The types of flowers that plants produce are no accident. They display certain colors, shapes, sizes, and aromas to attract particular “helpers.” Other than wind, which doesn’t care, pollinators range from bats to butterflies. There are even some stinky flowers that smell like something is rotting. The pollinator? Flies! But far and away the most widespread and prolific pollinators are BEES. In fact, one out of every three food items we eat relies on bees.

Now, here’s some more awesome news: here in southern Arizona we live in one of the three Bee Capitals of the world! The other two are in deserts of Israel and Africa. We are surrounded by stupendous bee biodiversity. Almost all of our native bees are “solitary.” Each female makes her hole in the ground or in woody stalks and branches to lay her eggs. The largest in our area is the carpenter bee, a gentle giant. The smallest is the tiny perdita. In between are hundreds of different species.

The bee that is most familiar to people is the honey bee. They’re called “social bees” because they live and work communally, creating hives which the “queen” supplies with eggs. And together these bees produce a lot of honey. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are NOT native to North or South America. They were brought here, along with many familiar plants and animals, by early settlers from Europe. For centuries, they have been a mainstay of beekeepers, orchards, and gardeners.

The organization of the hive consists of the queen who lays over a thousand eggs per day; the drones (males), having hatched from unfertilized eggs, who mate with virgin queens; the workers (females), who care for the hive and the nursery; and the foraging/scouting workers who are also females. Only the females have stingers. The stinger is actually a modified ovipositor (egg-laying organ) and is barbed. 

A swarm, basically, is made up of traveling, hiveless bees. One is formed when the queen of a hive ages and her egg production slows down. The hive chooses a new, young queen to replace her. The old queen leaves the hive with a group of support bees in search of a favorable location to build a new hive. It’s an amazing process. When the queen gets tired, she lands on, for example, a branch. All the other members of her retinue land on and around her and around and on top of one another, creating a writhing, humming mass. They stay in that location for perhaps three or four days. During that time, a few individual bees go forth to find potential hive sites. When each returns, she does a “bee dance” to convey what she has found. Ultimately, one bee does a sufficiently convincing dance. At that point they all disengage themselves from one another and fly off together to build their new hive. 

Generally, the bees of a swarm do not pose a threat to humans. They’re busy seeking a new hive site. It’s only the defenders of an actual hive that are dangerous.

In 1956, a strong species of African honey bee, well adapted to the tropical climate, was imported by Brazil to increase its honey production. Subsequently 26 swarms escaped and expanded throughout South America and northward. 

In 1990 the African honey bees entered the southwestern U.S. Over time they have hybridized with our European honey bees, creating what is known as Africanized honey bees. In our region virtually all honey bees are now the Africanized variety. 

This is significant because these bees do everything their earlier counterparts do, but to a greater degree. Think bees on steroids. That seems like a good thing, and it is for pollination and honey production, but there is a big drawback. Because of their fierce defense of the hive, they have been nicknamed “killer bees.” Actually, the sting of one Africanized honey bee is no worse than that of its European counterpart, but if the defenders of the hive perceive that you are a threat, they attack en masse and can chase you for up to a quarter of a mile. The toxicity of a hundred or more stings can be deadly!

That doesn’t make them “bad” bees. They’re just doing their job to keep the queen and hive safe. In fact, the bees you may encounter on the flowers in your garden are not hive defenders. They have their own job to do, pollinating. Feel free to get up close to check them out without worry. If a bee decides to check YOU out, don’t panic and flail your arms. That will only make the bee think you’re trying to kill her, and then you may very well get stung. It’s not in her best interests to sting you because she will probably lose her life as a consequence. Her stinger generally gets pulled out of her along with a chunk of her abdomen.

In recent years our nation has experienced a shocking decline in honey bees (as well as bumble bees and many solitary bees). Beekeepers have suddenly found all their bees dead or missing, a phenomenon known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). The most significant culprit appears to be a particular type of neuro-active insecticide called “neonicotinoids” which attack the nervous system. It doesn’t immediately kill bees, but it interferes with their flying and navigational abilities, and the tainted pollen they bring back to share with the hive has a cumulative effect like a slow poison, eventually incapacitating all the bees. Virtually all corn and a large percentage many other crops grown in the U.S. use this type of insecticide.

Human behavior, from chemical use to habitat destruction to climate change, has and continues to impose huge threats on these busy workers. Education is key to understanding what we are putting at risk. You might say our own lives depend on it!

The Pollinator Garden at the Reid Park Zoo is an excellent way to learn about the critically important roles played by all of our pollinators and how you can help keep them healthy and protected.  Like everything on the grounds of the Zoo, it is designed to promote both human and animal welfare.  And it’s good to know that the grounds and habitats in the Reid Park Zoo expansion will provide even more habitat, food, and shelter for our busy but underappreciated native pollinators.

A driving force:  Conservation

A slightly implausible family discussion:

Mom and Dad:   Where would you like to go on Saturday, you two?

Jimmy:   How about to the Animal Welfare Organization?

Susie:    Yay!   I can’t wait to see all the enrichment!  Please, Daddy?

Jimmy:  Me too!   And the inspiring animal management!  Can we?  Mom?

In other words, they’d love to go to the zoo. And although Jimmy and Susie might not notice the behavioral enrichment and quality animal management, not to mention the world-class veterinary care behind the scenes, these are all features of responsible and reputable zoos, such as those accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). According to the AZA, more than 183 million people visit accredited zoos in the U.S. every year, and that’s more than the annual attendance at games of the NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLB combined! Visits to zoos provide affordable and healthful outings with the additional bonus of education, development of empathy, and increased connection to the natural world, so crucial for today’s urban dwellers.  

None of these benefits are coincidental. Accredited zoos are carefully designed to provide habitats and enrichment that allow animals to engage as much as possible in the same activities they would in the wild. Grounds are beautiful, green, and ADA accessible. Zoo staff and volunteers are carefully trained to provide up-to-date information about each species and its conservation status, including actions visitors can take to support conservation efforts. A high-quality accredited zoo, like the Reid Park Zoo, has a robust commitment to species and habitat conservation, both on the grounds and “in situ” (in the wild).  

Commitment to Conservation

The Species Survival Plan Program

Let’s begin with what’s happening on the grounds of the Reid Park Zoo. You may notice that you’ll see both males and females of many species, for example the Grevy’s Zebras, the Baird’s Tapirs, the Lions, the Anteaters, the Meerkats, the African Elephants, the Reticulated Giraffes, the White Rhinos, and more. Sometimes these males and females are together, and other times they are in adjacent habitats – why? It is all about The Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ SSP, or Species Survival Plan.  

If certain individuals of a species are designated for breeding in a member zoo, they will be allowed to roam their habitat together, and to let nature take its course. But many of these creatures are solitary in the wild, so they prefer to have individual habitats except during breeding season. These couples need to be gradually and carefully “introduced” again every time there is a breeding recommendation for them  (examples of this at the Reid Park Zoo are the anteaters and tapirs in the South America Loop).

The SSP for each species is coordinated meticulously (by the AZA) to determine which animals can breed in order to produce offspring that will enhance the genetic diversity of the species in general. At some time in the future, when native habitats are safer for a species, perhaps offspring from these pairings can be reintroduced into the wild to begin restoring the numbers of their species. 

An inspiring SSP story comes to us from the Phoenix Zoo. The Arabian Oryx, (a beautiful antelope) was classified as extinct in the wild due to hunting. However, a breeding and reintroduction program for this animal in Phoenix enabled its reintroduction to the Arabian Peninsula, where it is now protected and boasts 1,000 individuals! An SSP in an accredited zoo can make a real difference, especially because according to the IUCN (The International Union for the Conservation of Nature) there are still 33 mammals – as well as countless other creatures and plants –  in the “extinct in the wild” category. 

The SAFE Program

Another AZA initiative that the Reid Park Zoo participates in is the SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) program, which focuses on certain species threatened in the wild. The four species that are supported by our Zoo through the SAFE program are the Giraffes, the Andean Highland Flamingos, The North American Monarch Butterfly, and The North American Songbird.

  • The Flamingos: The Reid Park Zoo is the program leader for this initiative, coordinating funding for research into the Chilean, James’ and Andean flamingo species. The amazing zoo staff is also responsible for coordinating all the educational and conservation materials about the flamingos for all AZA zoos.
  • The Giraffes: Tucson’s Zoo works with the SAFE program, providing conservation messaging about poaching and habitat destruction, as well as funding toward Giraffe health monitoring and population monitoring projects in situ.
  • The Pollinator Garden: One of the most popular new areas in the Zoo is the Pollinator Garden, where native plants provide food and safety for migrating Monarch Butterflies on their way to Mexico. Numbers are closely recorded and reported to the SAFE program. Of course, this area also provides food and shelter for many other important pollinators, such as bees! There are special “bee boxes” for those bees that live in hives, and once established, they are relocated by a bee expert to agricultural areas where they can assist in even more pollination.
  • The North American Songbird SAFE program:  In  collaboration with the Audubon Society, nest boxes have been installed throughout the zoo to house several native bird species. Many enjoy the Pollinator Garden. Also, on the grounds you’ll now have opportunities to learn more about our native birds and how we can protect them.

In-Situ Conservation Partnerships

The Reid Park Zoo supports and contributes financially to a number of in-country conservation programs, including  The Tanzania Conservation and Science Program, The Anteaters and Highways Project in the Cerrado region of Brazil, The Baird’s Tapir Survival Alliance, Andean Bear Research by the University of Arizona in the Chingaza Massif region of Colombia, the International Rhino Foundation, and the Pantanal Giant Armadillo Project.  

Conservation is truly the core mission of The Reid Park Zoo.

And the Reid Park Zoo expansion, when completed, will allow Tucson’s Zoo to further increase their commitment to conservation, as more endangered species, such as Tigers, Siamangs, Komodo Dragons, and Red Pandas will be given a greater chance to survive for future generations. It’s nice to know that  just by visiting The Reid Park Zoo, you too will be helping to save these animals!

You really want to know, What type of animal you are seeing?

At first glance you might see an animal with a conglomeration of characteristics from more familiar species. You will see a prehensile snout like an elephant, a thick hide like a hippo, or hoofed toes like a zebra. Because it has 3 toes on its hind legs, it belongs to the Perissodactyla Order of odd- toed Ungulates. That means the tapir is not a relative of the elephant or hippo, but it IS more closely related to zebras and rhinoceros – not something you’d guess just by seeing one! But they’re definitely worth seeing.

Baird’s Tapirs have played a central role in maintaining the biodiversity of forests, grasslands, wetlands and rainforests from southern Mexico all the way down to Colombia, for millions of years. Today’s tapir are called a primitive species because according to fossil remains, they have not changed since the Eocene era (about 33 – 56 million years ago).

At 400-600 plus pounds, the adult Baird’s Tapir is the largest land mammal found in its regional habitats. Their giant football shape, tiny tail and high-stepping back legs help them move nimbly through the dense forest. With the exception of cream colored ear tips and cream color under their chins and on their chest area, they have brownish-black short fur, which covers their very muscular thick-hided and thick-necked bodies.

Their toes spread out for good traction in mud or river banks. The tapir’s ears, eyes and snouts are located on or near the top of their heads. This positioning is integral to helping the tapir stay submerged in the water while grazing or hiding from natural predators, especially humans and jaguars. It also makes them hard for researchers to locate and study. Fortunately we have learned a lot from tapirs in human care.

A standout tapir adaptation is their prehensile elongated snout. When tapirs dive into the water, this snout acts as a snorkel. Tapirs can hold their breath for several minutes under water. In this short video check out Contessa, the Reid Park Zoo’s female Baird’s Tapir, holding her breath. A tapir’s day may start at dusk emerging from a well-hidden resting niche. He may forage through the forest looking for tasty plants or ripe fruit. The tapirs’ night activity continues with a cool off in a lake or stream and a graze on aquatic plants, but by daybreak they expertly hide away for a rest. 

Tapirs are browsers who can grab and pull branches and leaves from a wide variety of plants. Tapirs are far ranging and can eat up to 200 species of plant! This leads to their important role as “seed dispersers,” helping to support a diverse healthy ecosystem. Some seeds from forest trees like the wild almond tree are only spread by a tapir! Tapirs are a critical partner in saving forests and rainforest trees. Saving tapirs is also important because they are an umbrella species; if you can save the tapirs and their lands you will also save other animals and plants. 

Tapirs are secretive and elusive to scientists attempting to study them. However with the use of camera traps  and consulting indigenous peoples, scientists can shed more light on the movements and habits of the tapir and maybe discover new species or subspecies. There are 4 known species of Tapir:  Baird’s, Brazilian, Mountain and Malayan. A newly- discovered type of tapir, Kobomani, was studied and found (by most scientists) not genetically distinct enough to be considered a separate species.

Baird’s Tapirs in The Reid Park Zoo 

An on-and- off again romance might best describe Tupi and Contessa’s relationship. Reid Park Zoo participates in the AZA Species Survival Plan program with these endangered Baird’s Tapirs. Our Zoo also contributes to the work of Chris Jordan, an in-situ scientist who is giving his life to tapir conservation

In the wild tapirs mostly are solitary, elusive animals. But when it is time to mate they find each other through scent marking and vocalizations. Here at the zoo the animal care keepers read the signs that Contessa may be receptive to breeding and give her and Tupi access to the habitat together. They have successfully produced two of the world’s cutest calves, in 2015 and 2018. Contessa’s gestation lasts about 13 months and her male calves have nursed for about two years. At the time Toliver, the first son, had grown to  some 400 pounds, he was given a new home in Puebla, Mexico. Ibu, their second calf, was given a new home in The Milwaukee Zoo, also at around two years old. 

I may have given you enough clues to answer this riddle: What looks like a watermelon with legs?     

tapir calf! All four tapir species with their diverse habitat elevations and diet produce similar looking calves with striped and dotted brownish coats for camouflage from predators.

When you come visit Reid Park Zoo’s South American Loop to look for Contessa and Tupi through the banana trees, vines and bamboo, I hope you’ll add a new species to your favorites list! And soon, once you’ve checked in with these amazing and appealing “conglomerate” creatures, you’ll be able to head over to the Reid Park Zoo expansion to see even more amazing animals!